If Dana Marks were a cupcake, she would be a chocolate one with chocolate icing. At least, that’s the cupcake her husband Jay O’Berski brought her from Au Bon Pain after dinner one night.
“I thought this one was very Dana,” he said, grinning, as he held out his hand, the cupcake delectably perched on his palm. Marks gleefully clapped her hands together at the sight of the dessert. “I have such a sweet tooth,” she admitted. She took a large bite of the cupcake. “Oh my god, this is so good.”
Time set aside for indulgence comes rarely for Marks. As a theater studies professor at Duke, managing director and co-founder of Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, vivacious local actor and back-up singer in the band Curtis Eller, Dana Marks wears many hats. Free time exists mythically in her world. I first met Marks in the atrium of Page Auditorium at Duke University. She greeted me warmly, shaking my hand, and I followed her to her office. She gestured to a chair opposite a large desk, the single piece of furniture in the room, save for our two wooden chairs. I sat. Marks sat too, then leaned back in her own chair, crossing her feet up on the desk. She’s sorry, she explained, gesturing to the white walls behind her, for the lack of decoration in her office. She shares it with her husband, and they haven’t gotten around to decorating it yet. So busy. Too busy. She laughed, reaching one hand to her head to ruffle her short auburn hair.
The office isn’t entirely Spartan. A few minimalist posters of notable Shakespeare plays, such as “Hamlet,” adorn the walls. Marks wore a plain pink tank top, blue jeans, and a neutral colored sweater. She wore little makeup and no jewelry. Like the office, she decorated herself minimally.
We started to chat amiably. Marks’ genial, relaxed disposition and less than ostentatious dress differed drastically from her aura the very first time I encountered her. Though I really didn’t meet Marks at all during that encounter—I met Richie.
Staged as a bar crawl throughout Durham, “Richie” took a new spin on Shakespeare’s “Richard II” by employing an all-female cast and transforming royal pompousness into drunken debauchery. “Richie” played off of the hypocrisy of fame and royalty, drawing on young partygoing celebrities like Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton as inspiration.
Playing the titular role, Marks assumed all the poise and haughtiness of a queen bee, which made her inevitable downfall at the end of the play seem that much more pitiful. Lionized by the Five Point Star for her strong vocal skills and commanding presence, Marks’ Richie’s pompous gait and executive tone intimidated even her own loyal band of followers.
Triangle Arts & Entertainment called her interpretation of the role “brilliant and deftly played.” Indy Week revered her as “vivid.” Much like the chocolate cupcake, critics could not think of a bad thing to say about her performance. Marks made me truly believe in her arrogant character—so much so that I was admittedly a bit shocked when an entirely different character warmly greeted me and welcomed me into her office, several weeks after “Richie” ended its three-weekend run.
“It’s actually a skill to learn how to leave [the character] at the theater,” Marks said. “But when you’re first training as an actor, you don’t know how to let go of that character right away. You might leave an acting class totally in love with your partner, because of a scene you just did.”
She laughed. “It’s pretty common!”
Still, staying in character for nearly three hours seems to be a trying task. Marks confessed that transitioning from extreme emotions back to reality simply comes with time.
“As an actor, you always have to be conscious of your behavior and recognize that maybe that particular feeling is strong because you’ve never felt it before,” she explained. “We can manipulate those feelings and with time, call upon them at will. The more we do it, the easier it is to let go.”
Though Marks has mastered the art of dipping in and out of character, she admitted that she can never leave acting at the door.
“I am an actor. It’s just a part of me,” she said expressively. “But when I do a role, there is a script. There is an imaginary circumstance, and I have to find a way to live truthfully through that. In real life, I might engage in different behaviors depending on the situation and the person I’m talking to. I’m always conscious of behavior. But in my real life, I’m not a character.”
Marks agreed that separating the character from the self isn’t easy to do. However, she flits from profession to pastime almost constantly, essentially playing multiple roles over the course of a single day.
“Wife” happens to be one of these many roles. Marks works alongside her husband, O’Berski, in almost every aspect of her life. While Marks is the managing director of Little Green Pig, O’Berski is the artistic director. O’Berski directed the production “Richie” and directs many of the LGP productions in which Marks performs. Both work in the theater studies department, teaching classes on acting techniques and skills. They not only share an office, they share a home.
“It’s great!” Marks said, and laughed. “Well you would think, ‘Oh my gosh, a married couple living, eating, breathing together might be a bit of an issue!’ But we work very, very well together, because so much of who we are is tied up into what we do. We get each other, we understand each other.”
And understand each other they have to, considering that they run Little Green Pig as a two-man operation. Marks balances the books, while O’Berski takes care of the casting and the planning, and both constantly work on marketing. These jobs sound time consuming enough, but on top of them, both O’Berski and Marks teach, direct and perform.
“It never ends!” Marks exclaimed, jokingly exasperated. She laughed again. Nor does the end seem near for Marks and her career. Generally, people measure success in the theater world by fame. Making it on Broadway or in Hollywood qualifies you as a successful actor. But Marks measures success by passion.
“I’m working constantly here, more than I ever did in New York,” she said happily. “And doing roles that I never would have gotten cast in if I had stayed in New York.”
Getting one great role in New York, and then having to wait two more years for the next big break just doesn’t appeal to Marks. She wouldn’t be happy unless she was constantly busy, immersing herself in performing and teaching. After seeing LGP’s performance of “Richie,” I commented on Marks’ performance to two friends of mine who performed alongside her in the play. They too had mulled over the reason that Marks chose to stay in Durham over pursuing a more prestigious acting career elsewhere.
“I wonder how Dana would do in the Royal Shakespeare Company,” mused senior Alyssa Wong, over ice cream later that night. She laughed and shook her head. “She’d blow them all away.”
That said, Marks has spent time in New York as an actor. Living and performing in Durham, however, has given her an entirely different perspective on the Big Apple.
When asked about Durham, Marks couldn’t gush enough.
“I love it, I love it, I love it,” Marks declared, grinning. “And I’ve lived several places. I’ve lived abroad and worked abroad. But I like it here; it’s familiar because I grew up here. But it’s also doable here. The city of New York is great, it’s a Mecca for artists. But it’s so beyond saturated, that it’s hard to get a foothold there. And, it’s not the-be-all-end-all. There are wonderful people working all over the globe at the same level that people in New York are working. It’s not the only place to be.”
For many artists today, Durham is the only place to be. The city itself is experiencing a Renaissance of sorts—new restaurants are opening up downtown, it seems, almost every day. The local music scene is exploding with new talent and genres. It seems Durham is now becoming the Mecca for artists, and is drawing in more and more actors, filmmakers, dancers and inventors that are coming to Durham to explore their crafts.
“It’s kind of waking up, it’s really exciting to be here right now,” she told me.
Growing up in Raleigh, Marks is no stranger to the Triangle area. She remained there for undergrad and graduate school before attending the American Repertory Theatre/Moscow Art Theatre Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard. After graduating, she moved to New York to look for work as an actor. While working on a film, she met O’Berski, who happened to be taking a hiatus from the theater group he had created in Chapel Hill. She moved with him back to Durham, where he had a job as a professor at Duke, coming full circle back to the Triangle.
At first, Marks seemed to be a big fish in a small pond. Whereas in New York she spent less time working than she did seeking roles, she enjoys a constant chaos with her involvement in the Durham arts scene. A skilled actor in a smaller college town would clearly have no competition for roles, right?
Wrong: Durham’s emerging status in the arts scene has attracted a vast array of talented performers. Competition has risen among Durham’s actors. Despite this, Marks still snags role after role in local productions—and enjoys status as one of the most sought-after actors in the Triangle area.
Jeffrey Moore was working in an improvisational group when he met Marks, who had come to the group as a guest. They later performed in several plays together, and eventually Moore joined the LGP family.
“The more I get to know her, the more I ask her, ‘Where is your Achilles heel?!’” Moore twanged in his Southern accent, putting his hands on his hips in mock-frustration. “But seriously! That woman is good at everything. And not only does she do it all—acting, teaching, directing, whatever—but she’s also just so sweet.”
“There are a lot of talented actors in this area,” he added, grinning knowingly. “But she’s at the top of every list.”
At Manbites Dog Theater one Thursday night, Moore was preparing to read a passage from Animal Farm at the Durham County Library’s Banned Books Week celebration, which Marks and O’Berski were directing. Due to her busy schedule, Marks wouldn’t be able to make it to the performance a few days later, so she met up with Moore to provide some extra direction.
Moore launched into his monologue. Hanging on his every word, a wide-eyed Marks leaned forward, halfway off the plush pink couch she sat on. Moore stopped, pausing to reevaluate his last words. How should he present this line? Should he maybe step forward here? Marks jumped up from her seat and started to walk around with him, acting out the scene with him in a kind of duet. He follows her, mimicking her motions. In a single moment, Marks suddenly had become the narrator, adapting that eerie, foreboding tone as she told the seemingly lighthearted story of a farm.
“The other pig…Napoleon and that other pig?” Marks and Moore were trying to identify all the animals in “Animal Farm.” It was not an easy task. Way more animals lived on that square footage than legally allowed.
“Snowball,” I supplied, and they turned, suddenly remembering that I was there.
Moore high-fived me.
“I haven’t read ‘Animal Farm’ since I was in high school,” Marks laughed, ruffling her hair. “It was a stretch.”
It’s Saturday night at the Emily Krzyzewski Family Life Center. People are milling around the food trucks, talking and laughing. The local band Curtis Eller, named after their lead singer, had an hour set reserved. Marks hopped on stage, wearing grey trouser capris, a plum colored tank top and a black vest. On her feet are classic green suede shoes. Her short hair is slightly spiked. She reaches for the microphone.
“Check, check, check, check one, check two.”
As the band prepared their instruments, Marks walked around stage. She teased and chatted with the other band members, laughing a lot. As the music started, Marks began moving to the rhythm, snapping her fingers and nodding her head. She clapped her hands vigorously to the beat, grinning ear to ear all the while.
The tempo picked up. Marks danced all over the stage, jumping around, clapping her hands, shaking her head, tapping her feet. She acted out parts of the music, opening her eyes wide and looking at the audience knowingly, pointing her finger. At other moments, she danced wildly, her hair flying in an auburn whirl, arms lifted above her head. By the end of the first song, a flushed Marks grinned, grabbing her microphone.
“Thanks for the dedication, everybody!” she called gleefully out to the unresponsive crowd. “Thanks for sticking around!”
Before the music started up again, Marks spotted me in the crowd. She grinned and waved wildly. I waved back.
Marks continued her high energy dancing until the very end of the set. During the last song, she completely let go. A few people in the crowd nudged each other and pointed at her, giggling softly. Marks didn’t notice. Dancing uninhibitedly, shaking her arms and legs, bouncing several feet off the ground, Marks let the wave of passion wash over her.
As the band packed up their instruments, Marks hopped off stage. She took a deep breath and pushed her hair back from her face, gulping down a plastic cup of water. She looked out into the crowd and smiled.
A middle aged man walked past me, wearing a bright green shirt proclaiming “Durham: It’s Not For Everyone.”
No, Durham isn’t for everyone. But as Marks gazed around the parking lot of the Emily K Center, smiling widely, Durham seemed to be just the place for her.
At the East Campus Union on a brisk Sunday afternoon, Marks ordered a decaf soy latte. She noticed a large bandage on the unsmiling cashier’s arm.
“Did you burn yourself?” she asked, concernedly, eyes growing wide. The cashier shook her head. “Stitches,” she mumbled, averting her eyes as she handed Marks back her credit card.
“Oh, wow,” Marks said sadly. “I’m sorry.”
Marks waited patiently as the cashier prepared her latte. “Thank you so much,” she said warmly, when the drink was ready. “And I hope you feel better!” The cashier smiled.
We sat down with our coffees. Marks told me about her week. “So busy! Too crazy!” Nothing extraordinary.
“But all good things!” she quickly assured me, before inquiring about my own week. At the moment, Marks is directing a scene for Antic Shakespeare at Duke and a one-man show at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, among her other professorial duties and work for Little Green Pig. She won’t be preparing to perform in another show until April, so this break is much needed, but she’s already getting antsy to get back in the spotlight.
Marks informed me that she recently just signed with a national agency. “I know I’ll regret it if I don’t do it,” she said, about getting into television and film. “And let’s be honest, I’m not a spring chicken anymore!” She laughed and takes a sip of her drink. “It’s now or never.”
The agency will give Marks opportunities to go on auditions in different locations, though she still will have roots in the local theaters. She has no plans to leave Durham permanently to pursue fame and fortune—she just wants to try out this new medium of performing.
“The great thing about being here is that it’s much more conducive to doing your own thing,” Marks enthused. Acting, directing, teaching, singing—the constant changing of hats makes Marks happy. She can do all these things in Durham. “Here,” she said. “It’s just manageable. I can see the world.”
Setting: the Bryan Center Rehearsal Studio. 3:06 p.m. on the dot. Scene: about 12 Duke students slowly milling around the room. Some were reading over scripts. Some were chatting. Some removed their shoes, and sighed loudly—as if a huge weight had been removed upon reaching this class.
The weight of formality, it would seem—as Marks believes that in her Introduction to Acting class, all the students must be completely comfortable with one another. The students slowly congregated in a circle toward the center of the room. Marks joined them, dressed in a tank top, jeans and sneakers. The students first had to shake out all their body parts, in order to loosen up and prepare for class. Marks led by example.
“One, two, three, four! One, two, three, four!” She screamed, waving her right arm, then left arm, wildly in the air. The class followed suit, until hollers of the countdown filled the empty room.
One student, a little less engaged than the rest, peeked up through his hair at Marks. She was vigorously shaking her arm, concentrating on nothing else. He started to mimic her enthusiasm, shaking his legs and arms a little more rapidly than before. When the exercise ended, he was smiling.
“I never wanted to teach!” Marks said, when we are safe in the confines of her office. “I kind of came into it by accident. It scared the hell out of me, because I never thought I could do it, but I went in there and found out that I really, really enjoyed it.”
“Every day, it’s really fun. It is. I say that I’m a teacher second to performing, but—” Marks paused in thought. “But, you know, I think it’s pretty tied into acting.”
“It’s actually kind of like I’m doing field research,” she laughed, ruffling her hair. “Working on my craft while I’m teaching other people to hone it too. Because I’m learning, every day I see someone do something new, and I get a lesson myself.”
“Today, Marks’ students were paired up to do interpretations of scenes from the play “The Shape of Things.” The first pair of students went up to perform. The rest sat in creaky fold-up chairs in front of them, watching. Marks stood at the edge of the room, in a corner by the door. Her face suddenly went devoid of all emotion. Her eyes grew wider as her mouth formed a perfect O.
The actors began their performance. From time to time, Marks threw her head back and laughed, a genuine belly laugh. She gasped at all the right places, nodded vigorously during other moments, murmuring “uh huh” to herself. Her eyes never strayed once from the pair. The actors finished.
“Stay up there!” she cried, running forward. “That was fantastic!”
The actors grinned at each other, pleased with themselves, pleased with her approval. Marks continued to gush ecstatically as she gestured emphatically. “That was just words on a page before you guys interpreted that,” she said. “You brought that to life! You created a story.”
Marks turned to face the rest of her class. “Without actors,” she said passionately, spreading her arms wide, “there is no story.”